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TPG Contributor Jason Steele has noticed a dearth of Star Alliance awards that should be showing up when trying to search through United.com. Curious, he investigated further, and this is what he found out about where to find the Star Alliance awards you need and how to book them.
As award search engines go, the one on United.com can be pretty good. It is far better than sites like Delta’s, which returns limited results that are rarely reliable, or US Airways, which shows no partner award flights at all (well, except American now). Nevertheless, I have found that a significant number of partner award flights are not appearing on United.com lately, even when searching individual flights rather than complicated connections.
Something is Missing
I knew that trying to book a summer trip to Europe for my family of four would be a challenge, especially at this late date. Nevertheless, I was surprised by the pretty much non-existence of saver level partner award seats shown as available on United.com on flights operated by other carriers, though I found plenty of Lufthansa saver space. Rather than chalk it up to the peak summer travel season, I decided to investigate whether or not the website of fellow Star Alliance member ANA airlines of Japan was showing partner flights that United.com was not.
How to search for Star Alliance award seats using the ANA web site
Using the ANA web site to search for Star Alliance award seats is not that hard, but there are a few tricks. First you must sign up for a free account and log in. You can sign up here.
After logging in, you will need to find their award search page, which is surprisingly difficult. So after logging in, I go to this link. Here, you will find the award search home page, but if you have no miles in your account, the option to search Star Alliance partners will be grayed out.
To work around this issue, simply perform any search for ANA International Flight awards:
Next, you will see the results, but with the option to use Star Alliance Member Airlines:
From there, you can make as many partner searches as you want without going through this process again.
For more information on this workaround, see How to Use the ANA Award Tool to Search Star Alliance Award Availability.
United.com Versus ANA
United.com should be a great site to search for Star Alliance award space. They claim to display most partner award seats, and their search engine is fairly good at finding routes involving one or even two connections, sometimes too good (No, I do not want to fly from Denver to Chicago with a 25-minute connection in Moline, IL).
On the other hand, ANA’s site is so accurate at finding award space, it is essentially the gold standard. If you can find Star Alliance award space on ANA’s site, it should be bookable with other Star Alliance partners. Likewise, if a seat appears on a Star Alliance carrier’s site but not on ANA’s, then it is almost certainly un-bookable “phantom space”.
The problem with ANA’s site is that it really doesn’t piece together connecting flights very well. It is up to you to find out which airlines offer service along a particular route, and methodically search ANA’s site on your own. Thankfully, ANA.com returns results very quickly, and it will even display space available over a seven-day period.
However, no matter how you find the award space, if it does not appear on the site of the airline you have miles with, you will need to call to book the flights. One thing phone agents sometimes say is that airlines release different award space to different partners, but that’s simply not the case in terms of these Star Alliance saver awards. Airlines might hold more award space for their own frequent flyer program members, as Singapore’s KrisFlyer does, but if you find award space on ANA, United agents should be able to see it as well. And if the agent you get can’t see it, or refuses to investigate further, hang up and call again.
Where United.com is Not Showing Space
I looked at the 25 other members of the Star Alliance in order to see if award space available on ANA’s site appeared on United.com. In most cases it did, but there were several significant exceptions:
ANA’s long-haul space appeared to be available at United.com, but their short-haul service was often invisible without a long-haul connecting flight being part of the search. For example, I could find this flight below from San Francisco to Nagoyo, Japan, via Tokyo’s Narita airport:
But searches for flights from Narita to Nagoyo turn up empty:
LOT Polish Airlines
Not that long ago, LOT Polish Airlines seemed to have some of the best intra-European and transatlantic award availability within the Star Alliance, and their award seats frequently appeared when searching United.com. Thankfully, the award space is still there, you just have to search elsewhere for it.
For example, as of the time of this writing, there are still two available business class award seats on many flights this summer between Warsaw and New York JFK on their 787s according not to United, but to ANA.
Last December, United.com stopped showing award space on Singapore, that is what little award seats that Singapore actually made available to its partners. United blamed Singapore and Singapore denied it, but none of this bickering made it any easier for customers to find the award space they desired. Thankfully, ANA continues to reliably show those rare, coveted Singapore awards. Award availability in premium cabins is still tight, but if you can find it on ANA, you should be able to book it through United.
I found several instance of long haul flights on South African that appeared on ANA but not on United.com. For example, this flight from London to Johannesburg showed up on ANA.
To confirm the award is actually bookable, I called United’s MileagePlus customer service center. The representative I spoke with verified the award seats I saw on ANA and quoted me a price of 60,000 miles and $265.30 for the award, plus another $25 telephone booking fee.
Thankfully, the problem did not appear to affect the short-haul and domestic South African flights that I looked at.
Shenzhen Airlines is China’s fourth-largest carrier, but don’t expect to find any of their award space on United.com. For example, award flights between Guangzhou (CAN) and Sheyang (SHE) were available on every flight I viewed on ANA’s site, but United only showed connecting flights operated by Air China.
Outside of the Star Alliance, United is partnered with several other airlines. Here is what I found when I searched for award flights on United.com
Aer Lingus, Aeromar and Island Air
I was able to find award space for these airlines on United.com.
Cape Air is a small carrier that operates flights in New England, Montana, Missouri, and the Caribbean, but their award space does not appear on United.com
Great Lakes is a regional carrier with hubs in Denver and Los Angeles, but their award seats do not appear on United.com. You can use miles on United flights operated by Great Lakes Airlines that connect to a United flight to or from Denver.
MileagePlus awards are only valid for inter-island flights, but those award seats do appear on United.com
Jet Airways is the second largest carrier in India, but their award space is not visible on United.com
Tips for booking awards on United and other Star Alliance partners
1. Call to book seats that are only found on ANA. If the award seats you want appear on ANA, but not on United.com, Aeroplan, or any other partner site, be sure to call the airline in order to have them ticket it. For example, USAirways.com (now part of Oneworld but retaining several Star Alliance partners) never shows any partner award space (except American Airlines now), and travelers must always call to book any itinerary that contains at least one partner flight.
2. Use United.com to search connecting flights. While it would be ideal to search each for awards on flight individually using ANA, that can be very time consuming. For example 12, of the 26 carriers in the Star Alliance offer transatlantic service, which encompasses over 100 city pairs. Thankfully United.com is fairly good at putting together two flights, but it has a harder time with three. Rarely, will it put together four flights.
3. Search for flights to or from hubs. When trying to find award space, I find it most effective to limit my searches to city pairs with a single connection, limit. For example, if I am looking to fly from Denver to Milan and willing tolerate three legs to my itinerary, I might search United.com for flights from Denver to Star Alliance hubs in Europe such as Frankfurt, Brussels, and Vienna. Or, I could search between Milan to Star Alliance hubs in North America such as Newark, Chicago, and Toronto. This allows United.com to piece together just two flights, one being transatlantic. Then, I can look for the remaining short-haul legs individually.
4. Use Air Canada’s Aeroplan, but don’t trust their search results. In the wake of the recent United.com devaluation, and despite undergoing a devaluation of its own, Air Canada’s Aeroplan program can be very valuable. For example, a business class partner award to Europe that now costs 140,000 miles with United is only 90,000 miles with Air Canada, with one-way awards now available for half price. Nevertheless, you will have to pay hefty surcharges on Air Canada’s own flights as well as most partners except Air China, Brussels Airlines, EgyptAir, Ethiopian, EVA, Scandinavian, Singapore, Swiss, Turkish, and United. There are fuel surcharges for LOT Polish, but they are fairly low. For example, I was able to book Milan to JFK via Warsaw for $160.10. The problem is that Air Canada’s award search engine is not that great. It didn’t reliably show the LOT awards that I found on ANA, and I was forced to pay a $30 telephone booking fee to have one of my awards ticketed.
5. Try piecing together available awards as a multi-city itinerary. Just because United.com, and other airlines’ award search engines, won’t piece together the flights you found, it doesn’t mean that you can’t try to do so yourself. Ticketing the award online can save you telephone booking fees, as well as the time and hassle required to deal with airline customer service centers.
Star Alliance Partners Awards Visible On United.com
Here is a brief rundown of what I found on my own United.com searches and which of its Star Alliance and other partners’ awards are searchable and bookable online.
|Air New Zealand||Yes||Yes|
|LOT Polish Airlines||No||No|
|South African Airways||Yes||No|
|Hawaiian Airlines||Yes||(not eligible for awards)|
How have your own experiences using United.com lately been? Feel free to share your thoughts and tips in the comments below.